First Solar today announced that it has produced a cadmium telluride solar cell with a 17.3 percent efficiency, shattering a ten-year-old record set by NREL.

The old record was 16.7 percent and was set in 2001. In solar, that's like breaking a record set by Jesse Owens in Berlin. Most records in this business inch the mark up by one to two tenths of a percentage point.

The solar cell won't go into production soon, but might help ease some concerns that cadmium telluride is approaching an efficiency ceiling. First Solar's cadmium telluride solar modules are cheaper than any other solar module in the world to manufacture. In the first quarter, First Solar produced modules in its factory for an average of 75 cents a watt. (The actual sale price is higher.)

The average efficiency, however, is comparatively on the low side. First Solar boosted its average efficiency to 11.7 percent: that's up from the 11.1 percent efficiency for the same period the year before but below the efficiencies (14 to 20 percent) seen in crystalline silicon solar panels and the 12-percent-plus efficiencies seen in copper indium gallium selenide (CIGS) solar modules. Module efficiency is typically a few points lower than cell efficiency.

Some have theorized that cadmium telluride modules might top out at 14 percent to 16 percent efficiency. Crystalline silicon modules can realistically go to 25 percent efficiency, with cells approaching 29 percent efficiency. Crystalline manufacturers, however, can then boost those numbers by taking advantage of concentrators: SunPower, facing its own efficiency ceiling, unfurled a concentrator strategy last year. In the lab, CIGS cells have topped 20 percent. First Solar itself has even been conducting a skunk works project to test the feasibility of making CIGS modules itself for the past few years.

Thus, any efficiency breakthrough in cadmium telluride is good news for First Solar.

While some analysts will grouse that efficiency isn't the most important metric to look at when evaluating a solar technology, it is important. Very important, in fact. Boosting efficiency increases the power output of panels and the overall productivity of a factory. High efficiency modules also command higher premiums. A plant that produces modules with a 15-percent efficiency will simply generate more cash than an equivalent one that churns out the same number of panels with a ten-percent efficiency.

The announcement also helps quell any doubts about the company's dominance in cadmium telluride. The company produces nearly all of the world's cadmium telluride panels. In fact, it is also the dominant player in thin film solar modules. But in recent years, General Electric, Abound Solar and others have entered the cadmium telluride market. Earlier this year, General Electric said it hit 12.8 percent efficiency in the lab and planned on mass-manufacturing cadmium telluride modules with record efficiencies in 2013.

First Solar says it will be at 13.5 percent to 14.5 percent efficiencies by the end of 2014.

Take that, Batman.

Tags: cadmium telluride, efficiency, first solar, general electric abound solar, solar modules, thin film